John Brown isn't dead - that's not logical!


“John is dead.”

“That’s impossible; he can’t be dead.”

“But that’s an undisputable fact, he is stone dead – I even attended the funeral, a real tear-jerker!”

“By saying that a person is dead, do you mean that this person has ceased to exist?"

“Of course.”

“Well, so if John is dead, then he doesn’t exist!"

“Logically, this is precisely what has happened. A tragedy for the family.”

“Yes, but how can a nonexistent person be anything – like tall, rich, soaking wet?”

“He can’t, that’s stupid! Things that don’t exist can’t be … soaking wet.”

“And so, if John doesn’t exist, how can he then be dead? A nonexistent object can neither be alive, nor dead, just nonexistent.”

“What are you saying!?”

“Consequently, John Brown can’t be dead. As simple as that!”


This may seem like an overly silly argument, but it does demonstrate certain interesting features concerning human mental processes. The theologically inclined crowd might confuse the issue even further, by maintaining that “John Brown’s BODY lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his SOUL is marching on!” But on closer inspection we can easily see that such a body-soul dichotomy doesn’t resolve the issue. Because neither the body alone, nor the soul alone, are the complete John Brown, the actual person we used to call “John Brown”. The soul and the body are merely disconnected fragments of our previously existent John.

How come that John can’t be dead, particularly when we positively know that he has been buried, with flowers and all? Or, putting it differently, how come that we can (in everyday parlance) attribute the property “dead” to a nonexistent entity?

Using the word “entity” here gives the secret away. Because to say that a nonexistent thing has a certain property sounds clearly silly, but John Brown is not a “thing”, he is a person. And a person is more than an arbitrary “entity”. If you think about it (deeply, please!), then you’ll discover that John Brown is a fictional character in your mind, even when you might actually know a person by that name. The “real” John Brown (if and when he is alive) changes constantly, as an effect of his constantly changing thoughts, actions and physiological processes. The John Brown of AD 2005 is a different person from the John Brown of AD 2015. But the fictional character “John Brown” in your mind is roughly constant (provided of course that there hasn’t occurred any truly dramatic incident involving cheating, treachery etc. to make you change the image in your mind).

Saying that people we intimately know are actually just fictional characters in our minds might sound as a pessimistic catchphrase. On the other hand, we have all had experiences of “nurturing the wrong picture” of a person, e. g. believing that he or she is honest, when this turned out being dead wrong. The interesting conclusion is that the fictional character “John Brown” in our minds seems to be independent of what the physically real John Brown might be doing. Our mental image of the historical John Brown from the song (who is long dead) is (almost) as vivid as that of the Mr. John Brown who lives two blocks down the street. Hence John Brown, the fictional character in our mind, can be anything – dead or alive – like any fictional character in any film. Yes, it’s like in the movies, but here you are the director.

In the case of persons, the idea of harboring fictional characters in our minds seems reasonably plausible. But the same argument can be extended to cover almost everything, including physical objects. Because when we are thinking – about anything – we operate in our minds with abstractions, fictional “characters” that are acting out “the real stuff”. This points to the revolutionary findings of modern neuroscience: nothing you perceive is real, it’s all in your head!


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